To save the Core, states dump Core tests

Most Common Core states are sticking with the controversial standards, but writing their own tests, report Ashley Jochim and Patrick McGuinn in Education Next. Since 2010, 38 states have dropped out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), or both.

Fourteen states plan to administer SBAC in the 2016-17 academic year, and just six states plan to administer PARCC.

Political pushback is a major factor, they conclude.

“The new SBAC and PARCC assessments have Common Core written all over [them]—federally funded, part of a national effort,” said Mike Cohen, who directs the advocacy group Achieve. “In many states where opposition to the Common Core emerged, the compromise was to hold on to the standards and get rid of the aligned tests.”

Massachusetts and Louisiana have both moved forward with “hybrid” state tests that combine consortia- and state-designed assessment items. That may be the future of Common Core testing.

Too hard to fail?

Is it becoming too hard to fail?, ask Moriah Balingit and Donna St. George in the Washington Post.

School districts are making it harder to fail by banning zeroes for missed or failing work and letting students retake exams and turn assignments in late.

Under a new policy in Virginia’s Fairfax County, one of the nation’s largest school systems, middle and high school students can earn no lower than a score of 50 if they make a “reasonable attempt” to complete work. And for the first time this year, high school teachers who were going to fail a student had to reevaluate the student using “quality points,” making an F less detrimental to a student’s final grade. Prince George’s County in Maryland will limit failing grades to a 50 percent minimum score when students show a “good-faith effort.”

The goal is to keep students from giving up and give stragglers more time to learn the material. However, some teachers are dubious, reports the Post.

Forty-two to 69 percent of high school teachers had concerns about the proposed grading policy on a recent survey, said Theresa Mitchell Dudley, president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association.

“We have no problem being fair to students,” she said. “But if they are not doing the work and not performing, and we give them a grade they did not earn, how does that make them college and career ready?”

Sam Hedenberg teaches English to special education students at Fairfax’s Mount Vernon High School, where zeroes are banned. t=The lowest possible score is a 53.

“It definitely provides that opportunity for a kid to catch up,” Hedenberg said.

But he also has seen students game the system. One student was able to pass his class even though he skipped several essay-writing assignments. “Many students have already started to figure out that they don’t have to do very much but they can still pass,” he said.

The trend also is to base grades on students’ mastery of coursework, not on whether they do homework, turn assignments in on time or other measures of work habits.

At a Los Angeles charter network, seniors advised against test retakes in “exit interviews,”  reports KPCC.

Kayla Martin, who’s among this year’s graduates from PUC Community Charter Early College High, said some students felt comfortable blowing off tests because they could retake them. But that left them feeling less-prepared for college.

“Once you get to college, you can’t retest,” she said. “Once you get that grade, that’s it. You try to go to a professor and say, ‘Retest,’ and they’re going to laugh at you and say, ‘We don’t do that.'”

Now, students can retake quizzes, but not tests.

Who opts out?

Opt-Out Reflects the Genuine Concerns of Parents, argues Scott Levy, a New York school board member and parent, in an Education Next forum.

New York State’s high opt-out rate reflects parents’ worries about testing time, test quality, transparency and the link to teacher evaluation, he writes.

Outside of New York City, where nearly all students took the tests, the opt-out rate reached 30 percent, he estimates.

This Issue Is Bigger Than Just Testing, counters Jonah Edelman, who runs Stand for Children, which advocates for college and career readiness.

ednext_XVI_4_forum_fig02-smallAlthough 2015 opt-out students were much less likely to be economically disadvantaged or English Language Learners, they also tended to be modestly lower-achieving than those who took the test, he writes.

Stand for Children works with many low-income parents who think their children are doing well because they earn good grades, writes Edelman. Without standardized test scores, they don’t know their kids are behind.

“I’m talking about the African American grandmother in Memphis who was horrified to discover after we taught her how to interpret standardized test results that her four grandchildren—all of whom were getting As and Bs in school—were up to three grades behind in reading. With the assistance of Stand for Children, she found the children extra help right away, and they’ve caught up.”

Latino immigrant parents in Phoenix’s Murphy School District “were dismayed to learn their district was chronically failing to educate their children,” he writes. “Armed with that information and empowered by the state’s open-enrollment law, they moved their children to better public schools.”

Why are these kids doing so well?

Octavio Gutierrez previews lessons for students learning English. Photo: Emmanuel Felton

The kids are doing alright on Common Core tests in a small Los Angeles-area district, reports Hechinger’s Emmanuel Felton. In Wiseburn Unified, low-income blacks, Latinos and English Learners significantly outperform similar students elsewhere.

In fact, the district’s 55 percent of the district’s low-income black students passed the English exam, 11 points above the state average for all students.

Statewide, only 13 percent of low-income black students passed in math. In Wiseburn, 29 percent passed, the largest percentage of any district with significant black enrollment.

Superintendent Tom Johnstone said the district started teaching math differently in 2009, before the Core.

In the lower grades, teachers get on the floor with their students to work with brightly colored blocks and chips to assess their mathematical thinking and problem-solving strategies. In the middle and upper grades, students spend whole class periods on a handful of math problems, rather than racing through reams of equations.

An engineering curriculum called Project Lead The Way has students work together to build things. Johnstone says that program has been key to getting young students – particularly girls and minorities underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields – interested in math, science and the robotics team, which competes in world championships.

In English Language Arts, Wiseburn gives English learners what amounts to 27 extra days of instruction, with previews of what they’ll learn later in the week in English together with their native English-speaking peers.

Wiseburn is a predominantly Latino district with a high tax base from nearby aerospace companies. It’s a district of choice: 43 percent of students have transferred in from neighboring districts with struggling schools.

However, success isn’t just a matter of parental buy-in and funding, Johnstone told Felton. “Much of this was accomplished during the fiscal crisis, when we weren’t able to give out any salary increases for five years.”

Girls outscore boys on engineering test

Eighth-grade girls outperformed boys on the first national test of technological literacy, reports Education Week. The Technology and Engineering Literacy (TEL) exam, part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), was designed to measure problem-solving skills rather than knowledge.

Technology and engineering are stressed at Girls' Middle School, a private school in Palo Alto, CA.

Technology and engineering are stressed at Girls’ Middle School, a private school in Palo Alto, CA.

Overall, 43 percent of students tested as proficient or advanced.

The largest gaps were the familiar ones: Black, Latino, low-income and urban students did significantly worse.

Students were given “a series of virtual scenarios aimed at testing their problem-solving abilities and their ability to use information about technology and engineering to develop solutions,” writes Jackie Zubrzycki.

There was no evidence that the gap in scores was due to girls’ reading ability, said Peggy Carr, the acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.

As they take the test, students work through multistep scenarios that range from creating a historically accurate museum exhibit about a drought to developing safe bike lanes in a city. Students are provided with background knowledge about the topics before they are asked to answer questions about them: One of the scenarios included a background video about iguanas before students were asked to design an ideal iguana habitat.

. . . on a task related to designing a bike lane, 76 percent of students successfully identified components of a safe bike lane, the first step; 64 percent were able to identify potential adjustments to a sample set of bike lanes to make them safer by, for instance, expanding the lanes; 45 percent were able to successfully redesign the route using an interactive tool. But a smaller portion, 11 percent, could explain the rationale behind the route that they chose.

NAEP plans similar scenario-based tasks on other exams, starting with social studies or history.

Nearly two-thirds of test-takers said they’d learned about solving problems and fixing things at home rather than at school.

When I grew up, girls weren’t supposed to fix things and my father believed that Jews couldn’t fix things, so I didn’t learn much about how things work. Other than magic! I do have good problem-solving skills — if background knowledge is not required.

Take a look at the TEL task video and see if you think this is a useful way to measure technical and engineering skills.

Teachers may raise scores, but not happiness

Teachers who raise students’ test scores may lower their spirits, concludes a new working paper.

Harvard and Brown researchers looked at upper-elementary teachers’ “influence on math test scores and students’ self-reported behavior, self-efficacy, and happiness in math class,” reports Teacher Quality Bulletin.

More than a quarter of the most effective teachers (based on test scores) were among the least effective when evaluated using student non-tested outcomes.

To further complicate matters, the non-academic outcomes don’t always correlate. For example, teacher scores on classroom organization had a positive correlation with student behavior but a negative correlation with happiness in class.

Do we prefer teachers with happy, low-scoring students to teachers with high-scoring but unhappy students?

Jane Sanders: Testing is a ‘disaster’

If Bernie Sanders is elected president, he’ll take education policy “in the exact opposite direction,” said his wife Jane in a Nation interview.

“We don’t really believe in standardized testing,” said the former college president. “I think the standardized tests that they say: do you know fourth-grade English or fourth-grade history? I think is a disaster and absolutely would not support that.”

Bernie and Jane Sanders campaign together.

Bernie and Jane Sanders campaign together.

“Schooling is meant to help people be creative, to have their curiosity stimulated, and have them be actively thinking whatever they’re thinking about — whether it’s the stars, the universe, climate change, anything,” she said. “Having them be able to feel they can explore anything, learn anything.”

A former social worker and political consultant, Jane Sanders earned a doctorate in leadership studies and became interim president of Goddard College and then president of tiny Burlington College, an alternative school with a 25 percent six-year graduation rate. (She left the latter school in deep financial trouble.)

She’s a big fan of progressive education, which she defined as “just having the students have more of a say in what it is they want to learn.”

You might be studying philosophy, math, or English, but you’re learning about what your passion is. Instead of having there be a prescribed set of study — that has a person conveying that knowledge to you — the teacher, the professor is a facilitator to try to meet your needs and to get you thinking critically and writing clearly and communicating effectively.

What if thinking and writing aren’t the student’s passion? He can’t study philosophy or literature because he never learned “fourth-grade English.”

75% of seniors aren’t ready for college math

Only 25 percent of 12th graders are prepared for college math and 37 for college reading, according to the latest Nation’s Report Card from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). Math scores fell over the last two years, while reading scores have been flat since 2009.

Remember that the weakest students have dropped out by 12th grade.

Low performers are doing worse while high achievers are improving, notes Liana Heitin on Ed Week. The percentage of students scoring at the “below basic” level was higher in both reading and math, compared to 2013.

That may be a side-effect of the rising graduation rate, which hit 82 percent in 2014.

Racial/ethnic gaps are huge: 64 percent of blacks and 53 percent of Hispanics score as below basic in math; only 7 percent of blacks and 11 percent of Hispanics score as proficient or better. By contrast, a third of whites and nearly half of Asian-Americans are proficient or better.

Here’s more on the knowledge and skills required to score “basic” or “proficient” on NAEP’s 12th-grade math exam.

In reading, 49 percent of Asians, 46 percent of whites, 25 percent of blacks and 17 percent of black 12th graders are proficient or better.

“College for all” remains the mantra. Nearly two-thirds of high school graduates will enroll in college immediately: 55 percent will complete a degree within six years.

Why my Catholic schools are opting in to testing

As superintendent of Partnership Schools, a network of six urban Catholic schools in Harlem and the South Bronx, Kathleen Porter-Magee is opting in to state testing.  Results are used to “benchmark . . .  our students’ academic growth, and to ensure we are keeping expectations high,” she writes on The 74.

At St. Mark the Evangelist in Harlem, students take New York state tests, but don't do test prep.

At St. Mark the Evangelist in Harlem, a Partnership school, students take New York state tests, but don’t do test prep.

Union-backed organizations are trying to persuade parents to reject testing, she writes. One letter claims that “excessive standardized testing is consuming a child’s academic year” and that it “forces [teachers] to ‘teach to test’ and takes the joy out of learning”

New York state’s English and math tests take up less than one percent of the school year, writes Porter-Magee.

The test doesn’t “force” anything, she adds. “Decisions to scrap core content instruction in favor of test prep are leadership decisions, not policy decisions.”

“Independent measures” are needed to “ensure all students are being held to the same bar regardless of race or socioeconomic status,” writes Porter-Magee.

Recently, a Johns Hopkins University study found that “when evaluating a black student, white teachers expect significantly less academic success than black teachers,” and that “this is especially true for black boys.”

Moreover, “for black students, particularly black boys, having a non-black teacher in a 10th grade subject made them much less likely to pursue that subject by enrolling in similar classes. This suggests biased expectations by teachers have long-term effects on student outcomes.”

Relying only on “teacher-created tests and teacher-conferred grades” risks “systematizing the kind of unconscious bias that holds our most vulnerable children back,” she concludes. Standardized testing is “the best tool we have to expose” inequality.

Clinton abandons ed reform

Hillary Clinton is abandoning education reform, writes Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine.

In New York’s affluent suburban districts, test-hating parents “have joined forces with teachers unions, who see standardized tests as a tool that subjects them to unwanted accountability,” he writes.

Facing Bernie Sanders in the state’s presidential primary, Clinton is courting the “opt-out” vote.

Giving a national test once a year makes no sense, said Bill Clinton last week. Instead, he called for  “investing the same amount of money in helping the teachers to be better teachers.”

How would we know whether teachers are getting better?

“Testing is an important tool to measure racial and economic equality,” writes Chait.

A report this year by Ulrich Boser and Catherine Brown at the Center for American Progress found that states that use standards-based reform have produced better outcomes for low-income children. . . .  Not surprisingly, civil-rights organizations representing African-Americans and Latinos have argued to keep in place annual national testing.

. . . Bill Clinton framed his wife’s position in remarkable terms: “She thinks [the tests] are just too much, that it’s national overreach,” he said, “and the most it could ever do is to help people at the very bottom levels of achievement.”

Is “helping people at the bottom . . .  so insignificant that it’s not worth doing?” asks Chait. “What a thing for a Democrat to say!”

“You can’t solve problems you don’t have information about,” says Derrell Bradford,  executive director at the New York Campaign for Achievement Now, in an Ed Week story on testing flip-flops. “Saying you don’t need test data to make decisions about how to improve schools is like saying we can solve wealth inequality without income data and job reports. It’s just not real.”

African-American parents are the strongest supporters of school testing, reports Education Post. Most think tests are “fair and necessary” and “should be used to help parents identify areas where their child needs extra help.”